When Beth Hepworth won the Women of the Future: MBA Star award for her entrepreneurial venture, Frontier, she did so after overcoming extreme challenges that most MBAs couldn’t possibly imagine.
She set up her digital publishing, research and advisory firm in 2009 before taking on a full-time MBA at City University’s Cass Business School in 2011.
Frontier’s work was focused on Libya and two years after co-founding the company with fellow Director Alex Warren, the Arab Spring reached Libya and a revolution began to unseat the country’s former dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
“This effectively forced us to suspend our ongoing work in the country and we had no way of getting back in because of the conflict and no-fly zone,” says Beth.
“I chose an MBA because I needed to do something vocational that would help me develop my business in a 12-month window. It was a forced sabbatical.”
Cass’s strong focus on entrepreneurship and emerging markets was a perfect fit. The 12-month programme helped Beth broaden her perspective and sharpen up her start-up’s strategy.
“We had been so caught up in the excitement of a growing economy in Libya, that we had strayed from our initial plan to expand and grow our market presence,” she says.
“Cass highlighted the importance of fast growth. That approach has been really useful for helping us shape a new business into something that hopefully we can sell in the future.”
Beth has a passion for the Middle East and developed the business with Alex while living in the MENA region. She was working as a freelance consultant for companies hoping to invest in Syria and Morocco and realised the difficulty involved in forming a strategy.
“The analysis was not something that could be gleaned on a seven day trip from London,” she says. “With that in mind we wanted to establish a company which had a local presence.
“We called our company Frontier to highlight the sort of markets where we felt business information was lacking in, and where we hoped we could address a shortfall.”
The start-up provides a country-specific business website for sector trends, and tailored research and advisory to assist companies’ market entry into the region. Frontier also produces reports on key sectors in certain markets.
When the uprising in the Middle East really took root in late 2011, they had to close their offices in both Libya and Syria as civil war unfolded.
“Working in frontier markets always comes with a degree of risk,” she says. “This is not something that many business owners expect to deal with and we struggled.
“We are still grappling with the complexities of post-revolution Libya but I think everyone is at this stage, Libyans included.”
Cass has been helping MBA entrepreneurs succeed since the ‘60s and although challenging, Beth’s start-up was given a major boost by the Cass Entrepreneurship Fund.
Frontier was awarded considerable financial help in June this year from the business schools’ £10 million venture capital fund.
“It’s been vital for our growth plan,” she says. “Our current plan is to have country offices in ten markets within five years. Since June we have opened a fully staffed office in Ghana and are planning to open another in Myanmar in 2014.
“Having the investment from Cass meant that we could invest in people to support our current operations. Alex and I can now spend time expanding into new markets.”
Beth is not is not the only Cass MBA to be awarded for entreprenurial success. Just last month Simo Dragicevic scooped up the Entrepreneurial Venture Award from the Association of MBAs (AMBA).
He saw off competition from graduates at London Business School, becoming the third finalist from Cass who has been in the running for this award for three consecutive years.
His start-up, Bet Buddy, is a B2B software house offering predictive analytics, business intelligence and player messaging products. They help gaming operators understand player behaviour from a marketing and risk perspective and help players to make more informed choices about their play.
But it took an Executive MBA from Cass to turn Simo to entrepreneurship.
Before beginning the programme in 2009, he had worked in the finance industry for several years including stints at Barclays and Accenture. But he thought he had reached a “glass ceiling” and couldn’t progress any further.
He began the EMBA programme while forming ideas for a new business.
“When forming Bet Buddy, I was trying to understand whether we could have predicted the credit crisis,” says Simo. “A friend suggested that I apply this to gaming and gambling in a new area, to predict whether people could have problems in the industry."
While pursuing an EMBA, Simo’s dissertation thesis focused on this area and it provided contacts in the gambling industry.
He developed a research paper, with the help of a Cass lecturer, which was published in a peer review paper. “It was an unlikely use of my MBA,” he says. “But it gave me credibility.”
It was very hard to begin with but Simo focused on academic research and product development, and made enough progress to feel like it was an idea worth sticking with.
He utilized Cass’s co-working space, the Peter Cullum Centre for Entrepreneurship, and it has been important in helping to get his business off the ground.
“It’s been useful to be with other start-ups and to build a relationship with the investment team,” he says. “We’re going through a fundraising round and Cass has helped in terms of using their network of contacts.
“They have introduced me to potential investors and contacts in the gaming industry. An MBA hasn’t been essential but the entrepreneurial model at Cass was great.
“It doesn’t necessarily teach you. Instead, it inspires you.
“It makes your ideas seem more real.”